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THE DRAGON'S CLAW

A Complete Novelette

by J. Allan Dunn

Author of "Death's Carpenter," "The Pearls of Paruki," etc.

CHAPTER I
THROATS IN PERIL

THE puzzling, intermittent flashes came again, distinctly, as Neill McNeill, with his back to the sun that was just lifting above the horizon that rimmed the golden-brown desert, gazed with a troubled forehead at the spot where the phenomenon had appeared. He did not like it, he told himself, even while he strove to find some natural explanation for the dazzling streaks that came, irregularly enough, yet with a precision that hinted at some systematic method of production, flickering like miniature lightning from the low western hills whence their little caravan had recently emerged.

It might be caused, he thought, by the level rays of the rising sun shot back from the shoulder of a ledge heavily flaked with mica, shifting from the various facets with the changing angle of the golden beams, but he had not noticed any indications of mica in those sandstone hills and he was apt to notice such things. It was his business as a professional traveler and adventurer to do so.

Another series of the flashes started and flickered out, and McNeill shook his head slightly.

"I'm hanged if I like it," he said just above his breath. "Looks as if some one were signaling in Morse, though if it were Morse I could read it; it may be a Chinese code at that. If so, who are they talking to? There's something fishy about this hurried return trip. The old boy was in too much of a hurry to get back to Peking and—I wonder!"

His gaze wandered over the sleeping camp. Two mangy camels, sulky even in their sleep, lay with their heads stretched out on snaky necks. A dozen pack and saddle horses, dwarfed and shaggy, stood dejectedly about at the end of their pickets.

By the side of his own dog-tent was the humped canvas where Howard Remsden snored on one side of a primitive screen while, on the other, his stepdaughter, Helen, slumbered far more gracefully and easily. Spoked out around the ashes of last night's lire sprawled half a dozen Mongols. As McNeill looked keenly at these, counting them, first one and then another writhed and twisted in the sleep that was already beginning to be disturbed by the sun. There had been a long trek the night before, and man and beast had been exhausted before the dry camp had been pitched.

Suddenly McNeill gave vent to a short exclamation and swiftly, silently passed over the sand, soft and fine as ashes, closer to the fire and the sprawling Mongols. His lips parted in a smile as he peered closely at the nearest figure—lifeless, a huddle of clothes and dirty sheepskin.

"Neat trick that," he told himself. "Slipped out of his duds. Now then——"

His practised eyes easily picked up the trail of sandal-prints that led from the group, over low waves of sand that so blended in the strong, level light as to give a false suggestion of flatness.

His hand dropped to an automatic, holstered at his right hip, as he swiftly crouched to a kneeling position, one hand supporting him, the other on the grip of his gun, while he stretched his neck and looked over the crest of a shady billow.

His dark blue eyes matched the hue of the steel of the pistol, gleaming, through narrowed lids at the almost naked figure that squatted on the farther slope facing the spot where the flashes had shown in the hills. A brown, long-lingered hand clutched a disc of polished silver tilted so as to catch the sun-rays flaring off at premeditated intervals, a long or short glare of intense light as the curving hand rocked back and forth on the supple, sinewy wrist.

One flash caught McNeill fairly in the eyes and made them water. He noiselessly shifted his angle and then inched back, rose upright, strode past the Mongols and dived into his dog-tent from which he almost immediately emerged and started to shout at the sleeping men in their own dialect, with a vigor that soon brought some semblance of concerted action from them. A fire was started and preparations made for the morning meal.

The man who had been manipulating the silver mirror appeared, yawning as he came over the low dunes. He was of the northern clans, a giant in stature, as tall as McNeill, even broader-shouldered and with arms that swung his hands close to the knee-caps. A long knife, unsheathed, flashed red on his thigh. He hailed McNeill with a morning greeting, and the latter responded with jaws that shut grimly after the salutation.

"It's the first time I ever saw them mirror-talk in China," Neill was thinking, "but there's no reason why they shouldn't. Lots of things I haven't seen and never will. And those priests——?

"We'll start in fifteen minutes. Ling," he said to the tall headman. "We'll drink tea and eat after we get on the march."

Ling's mask of old ivory did not change, but his voice was gently deprecatory. "The master and his daughter are not yet arisen!" he said. "The beasts are tired."

"That is my affair!" snapped McNeill. "I am your master in this business and you have your orders. See that you obey!"

He could sense that the rest of the Mongols had suddenly stiffened in their attitudes, temporarily frozen, keen to some tenseness in the situation and the whip-like crack of McNeill's voice. From Ling's agate eyes showed a momentary gleam that might have been the light of any of a dozen emotions, none of them friendly. The gleam died before the steady light in the coldly blue orbs of McNeill. Ling turned away with the ghost of a shifting grin on his yellow face. To his shrill syllables two of the men shuffled off toward the camels and three others after the horses.

A flap in the humpback tent of native design was thrown back, and a girl came out, slim in her brown holland riding togs, putteed, helmeted with a pith topee, her skin slightly tanned, her eyes even bluer than McNeill's and her hair yellow as ripe corn. She was barely up to McNeill's shoulder, but there was no suggestion of delicacy about her slender figure or the free vigor with which she walked towards him.

"I suppose there is no water to spare for anything but tea," she said. "Not for myself, though I am gritty and grimy to the last degree, but father is fussing about shaving."

McNeill ran his fingers over the stiff red stubble of his own lean jaws and grinned.

"Not a chance of it before nightfall," he answered. "I wish you'd ask him to hurry. We've got to be moving. Have to eat in the saddle this morning."

She looked at him inquiringly but turned and went back to the tent while McNeill gazed after her admiringly. Then he wheeled. Ling had come up behind him noiselessly.

"Well?" asked McNeill.

"One of the camels is very sick—too sick to travel."

"Slit its throat and leave all its load. We can get along without tents for the next three nights."

Ling looked at him evilly.

"Four of the horses are badly galled," he said. "Three more are sick. We have come too far, too fast. We must rest."

"You know we are short of water," said McNeill. "Why do you disobey my orders?"

"It is not possible to obey them, O, my overlord," answered Ling, his face deferential, eyelids down, his soft voice impudent.

Back of him the Mongols had gathered in a half-ring, looking covertly out of almond eyes that glittered like those of snakes.

McNeill's left arm shot out, caught the waist-cloth of Ling and drew the giant toward him. Ling's right hand shot down to the haft of his knife, but, swifter still, McNeill had drawn his automatic and jabbed its blunt muzzle hard into the stomach of the Mongol.

"You dog," he said, "drop that knife! Drop it or——"

Ling's unwrinkled lids were wide now. In his stare came the red light that shoots from the black opal and tells of hate and murder. But the knife dropped to the sand and McNeill put his foot upon it. Then he swiftly searched Ling for more weapons, found another knife and a cheap revolver with three cartridges in the cylinder. The shells he tossed far away with a jerk, flinging the pistol after them.

"Miss Remsden!" he called.

The girl came running out of the tent. Behind her followed a stout man with a fussy, important face that was scorched rather than tanned, whose clothes fitted him badly and became him worse; a bow-legged, bow-stomached person who most evidently essayed to be a personage and who strutted like a gosling. His pale gray eyes were inclined to pop and now they strained at the action going forward.

"What's this McNeill, what's this?" he demanded in a pompous voice. McNeill paid no attention to him, speaking to the girl.

"My rifle—in my tent! And then get yours!"

She got the first and sped back for the second. McNeill stepped back from Ling who had stood immovable since the dropping of the knife. The muzzle of the rifle swung in an arc of command about the semicircle of Mongols.

"First to move, moves once only," warned McNeill. "Now then, Mr. Remsden, please go over them carefully and remove all their weapons. Miss Helen will help you cover them one by one as you go about it."

Remsden's red face had gone patchy and his hands shook but the nervousness of the man was evidently purely physical. He was not a coward and he nerved himself up to his task, backed by the girl. At McNeill's directions he tossed the miscellaneous assortment of weapons into a heap. The latter ordered Ling to make them into a bundle, using a sheepskin and tying the package firmly with strips of leather.

"I'll carry this," said McNeill, "till we come to the first hole, dirt or water. Now then break camp, leave the tents and heavy baggage. Saddle up! Jump!"

THEY jumped and McNeill, rifle at carry, walked to his own tent and picked up his field-glasses as the Mongols, spurred into feverish activity, stripped down the canvas. McNeill focussed his lenses and looked anxiously toward the western hills. After a little hesitation Remsden came over to him.

"What have you found out, Neill?" he asked. "What was it? A mutiny?"

McNeill turned on him.

"I'll answer you that question," he said, "when you tell me what you were up to at the temple. I suspected something when you wanted to come away in such a tearing hurry."

Remsden blinked at him from between his sandy eyelashes.

"Why there was nothing to stay for any longer," he said. "We had seen the ritual. I had got all I wanted."

"I don't doubt it," said McNeill. "The point is, what did you get?"

Remsden blustered.

"I employed you as guide and interpreter, Mr. McNeill, not to poke into my private affairs."

"As things have turned out they are my private affairs," said McNeill coldly, "if my life is my private affair, which I think it is. To say nothing of your stepdaughter's life, I don't know just how highly you value your own."

He broke off to hasten the final preparations for departure. The girl was already mounted. Remsden got patchy again and then his face flamed angrily.

"You have given me no explanation," he barked. "I repeat that whatever I do on this trip for which I hired you, has nothing to do with the contract. What has happened?"

"I caught Ling heliographing to a party in the hills," said McNeill briefly. "I think he was answering orders to delay us. I took up a collection of their cutlery to prevent a throat-cutting. I don't know yet whether I have succeeded. Look at that dust cloud there where the sun catches it. That's a party after us and they will come swiftly. I'll bet a thousand dollars they are priests of the Hoang Lung."

He caught the shifting of Remsden's eyes and nodded.

"I thought so," he added. "I don't know what you've been up to, but it's three days to Peking, seventy-two hours, and just about a seventy-two to one shot that we don't get there. Better get on your horse, Mr. Remsden. Ling, that's the pass you talked about last night, isn't it? How far is it?"

He pointed to two dark purple juts low on the eastern rim of the plain. Ling's eyes glinted.

"Twelve hours," he said. "If the horses and camels hold out."

"They'll have to. But we won't go that way Ling. We'll strike south until we strike the Chang-Li River. We'll keep in the gullies out of sight. I'm going to ride in the rear, Ling, and if I think, or if I should just happen to think, that you are trying to signal back any change of our plans, I'll shoot the lot of you. I'll defile your bodies and leave them to the vultures. I'll cut off your queues and burn them to ashes. Get my meaning? You do? Then start!"

Ling snarled like a trapped wolf, openly, forgetting to mask his feelings. McNeill grinned back at him. The girl rode over to the latter's side and he changed the grin to a smile as he surveyed her fearless eyes and her trim seat on the pony.

"We are in some danger, Mr. McNeill?" she asked. He looked at her and frankly nodded.

"And then some," he added, a bit grimly. "Thank God I'm not afraid to tell you. But we are going to get out of it all right."

"I'm sure of that," she replied quietly and rode ahead to join her stepfather.

McNeill's smile came back as he surveyed her. As the little caravan descended into a shallow ravine with rocks protruding here and there through the sand like dry bones, he began to whistle softly. A scrap was forward, and McNeill loved a fight. It was only when he thought of the girl that the muscles in his jaws tightened and the whistle was interrupted.

Back in the western hills the dust cloud moved swiftly down and out into the plain, steel points and blades twinkling here and there as the sun pierced the veil of floating soil.

CHAPTER II
IN THE CAÑON

DOWN in the blackness of the ravine the thin thread that still persisted in the watercourse tinkled over the flinty stones. The walls of the cañon lifted clear and sheer five hundred feet, dark blots of purple. The narrow strip of sky above them, as seen from the floor of this valley, suddenly appearing in the sandy desert as if the granite precipices had thrust themselves up through the yielding soil, was studded with stars. There was no sound but the sharp voice of the waters emerging from the sands to lose themselves again where the ravine ended.

A perilous ledge led along the western cliff and passed the black gorge of a cave that slanted sharply upwards after a brief passage that ran back level for perhaps a hundred feet. At the mouth of the cave, rifle across his knee, sat Neill McNeill, craving for the smoke he might not permit himself.

Forty-eight hours had passed since they left the camp where he had caught Ling heliographing, and all his senses warned him that danger was very close at hand. He knew it from the attitude of Ling and his followers. Their surliness was lightened; they had seen, had heard, or smelled something that his over-civilized perceptions had missed. He knew the priests must have been misled at first but they were indubitably far better mounted than the Remsden party, and not all McNeill's skill had been able to obliterate trails.

Both nights he had bound the Mongols hand and foot. By day he herded them. They were utterly one with the pursuit; they were eating up the scant supply of food and at times tried to delay the march, until McNeill threatened to shoot the first recalcitrant, but, if he left them free, it would but be to augment and advise the enemy, and he had a plan in mind by which he could still use them, despite their wishes.

Both the camels he had killed as too slow, taking valuable time to bury them deep so that the clustering carrion birds should not act as guides. Only two of the horses were in any shape to travel. Remsden had ruined two already with his weight and clumsy riding. The detour had delayed them, and they were still thirty hours from the outskirts of Peking. And, until they reached the foreign quarter of that city, they could not reckon themselves safe.

"Possibly not then," meditated McNeill, watching the opposite sky-line.

There was no trail on the face of the other cliff, so he covered the ledge on their own side and was on guard against surprize. At the end of the straight tunnel Remsden and Helen lay resting, if not asleep. Ling and the rest were tucked in a niche, none too comfortably, and McNeill himself had tied the soaked hide-strips that fettered them.

"I wonder," he went on in thought, "just what the old boy did back there at the temple. He was hobnobbing with that sleek rat, Fung-Ti, who got beaten out for high-priest at the last Hoang Lung election. Remsden's got his own ambitions. He'd rather be head of the Museum of Philological Research than anything in this world, or the next for that matter. He'd barter all he has for that, his stepdaughter included. When it comes down to his own ends he's a devil of selfishness. A-ha!"

He cuddled up his rifle lightly, leaning forward from the ledge. There was more than a hint of moonrise across the ravine, and his ears had caught the clink of metal—not hoof on stone, since few horses were shod in that region, but blade or point against stirrup.

Then, silhouetted against the radiance of the eastern sky, back so far from the edge that only the upper parts of their bodies showed, there came a file of horsemen. The riders wore queer, pointed caps and flowing robes. He could see spears and guns aslant their shoulders. They rode fast, and he counted over fifty.

There was a slight shuffle beside him. Ling, bound as he was, had wriggled his way to the front of the cave. His clothes had caught on something, and the force he had summoned to break free had betrayed him, even as he raised his face and opened his mouth to shout to the dark riders across the cañon.

With a sidelong sweep McNeill brought the butt of his gun down on the base of the Mongol's skull, and the cry died in his throat. But it was a close call, and McNeill patrolled the cave to the niche where he inspected his prisoners and gagged them with dirty strips from their own clothes, threatening them with a knife if they made the tiniest sound. Then he went back to where he had left Ling.

The ledge was empty.

"Came to and rolled himself over," McNeill decided. "Now I wonder just why."

The answer came to him almost immediately. The riders were coming back again, and McNeill could see two of them dismount and peer down into the black gulf, evidently suspicious of the sound they had heard—the slump of Ling into the cañon. He could have picked them off easily, but to remain hidden was of paramount importance. They had but a small supply of water. Besieged in the cave, they must soon give in.

No other sound came from the fallen Ling who had sacrificed himself in vain to serve the fierce priests of Hoang Lung. The smashing drop of a quarter of a thousand feet had beaten the life out of him.

"They'll stay till morning," McNeill told himself, "and then they'll find him, unless——"

He went back to the end of the tunnel where the natural rift narrowed and went up in a narrow, irregular ramp. Under this McNeill paused. Once he wetted his finger and held it up in the darkness. He thought he could detect a faint stirring of the air. From the pocket of the coat he wore, for the night air was chill, he fished out an electric torch and slipped the switch. The beam fell on the sleeping face of Helen Remsden, as she was styled, having adopted the name of her stepparent. McNeill's jaw hardened as he gazed at the beauty that even the cruel forcing of the last two days' flight could not eradicate. From an angle to the right where the tunnel side-pocketed came the faint stamping of horses and the reek of their bodies. Then he shifted the ray to Remsden's puffy countenance and, stooping, shook him by the shoulder.

"Eh, what?"

"Ssh!" cautioned McNeill. "Come with me to the cave mouth. I want a talk with you."

His tone was imperative and Remsden yielded to it without further grumbling. By this time the moon had topped the further wall and was whitening the ledge outside. By and by its light would steal down into the depths and, perhaps, reveal the body of Ling, sure sign that the white men were beleaguered near by.

McNeill thought of climbing down and either bringing back the body or hiding it beneath loose stones. But, in such darkness, he could not hope to eradicate all marks of the fall from the sharp eyes that would surely be seeking for them as soon as light permitted. There would be spatters of blood and, in the meantime, there were other things to do—hopes to work on. Remsden was one of these latter.

McNEILL tackled his employer without formality.

"Remsden, we are in —— bad shape. They've got us cornered. The Hoang Lung crowd has just filed along the cliff across the way. They are suspicious of this place and they'll hang around till morning. There are only two horses fit to travel."

"How do you know they are the Hoang Lung crowd? They may be just a band of robbers with whom Ling was in league."

"I'll bet you know it is the Hoang Lung outfit better than I do, Remsden. In point of fact, it doesn't matter who they are, so long as they are hostile. If they get us—well what they do to us two men don't count so much. I'll take good care they don't get Miss Helen alive, but they are nasty devils and their sort of vengeance don't stop at death. Now I am pretty certain you've got us in this scrape—something you've done at the temple. If it was sacrilege we can't help it now. If you've stolen something, you and that sleek rat of a Fung-Ti, perhaps they'll make terms with us if you give it up. And it's up to you to do it."

Remsden's beefy face was rigid with obstinacy.

"I've done nothing that can be undone," he said. McNeill, keeping the ray shaded from without, suddenly threw the light on Remsden's face and surveyed him keenly. The pop-eyes showed only a sullen doggedness.

"It was all right for you to risk your own life for whatever you were after," went on McNeill, "but, though you told me and told your stepdaughter you only wanted to witness the ritual, I don't believe you. But now you are risking her life and mine for that matter. You've fooled both of us. It's two lives against yours and both of them younger ones. Ling somehow slid off this cliff a little while ago," he went on moodily. "You might do the same thing."

"You mean you would kill me?"

"If I were sure you had something on you that would save the girl's life by giving it up, I would, without compunction."

Remsden gulped.

"You can search me if you like, McNeill. I've got nothing on me. You can search my baggage, destroy it if you like. You'll find nothing. I wanted to see the ritual. I may have offended them, but you're on the wrong track. There must be some way out of this. It isn't just a question of money, McNeill. I told you I'd give you a bonus if the trip was satisfactory. I'll double that. I'll triple it if you get me safe into Peking. That was in the contract—to guard as well as guide. Get me safe into Peking, McNeill, and I'll give you a thousand dollars. I'll give you five."

"I wouldn't accept five cents for trying to save your skin," said McNeill. "I'll do the best I can for you as per contract. Now you get back to the end of the cave. I'll need you presently."

"You think we can get away?" asked Remsden persistentl...

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